Academic journal article Philosophy Today

The Rhetoric of Failure and Deconstruction

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

The Rhetoric of Failure and Deconstruction

Article excerpt

Unmasking Deconstruction: Skepticism in Disguise?

In this essay I argue that in order to understand the consequences of Jacques Derrida's theory of language, it is essential to rethink the relationship of his philosophy to skepticism.1 The strategic return to the question of skepticism in the context of Derrida's work requires immediate justification because the very term "skepticism" is bound to evoke a long series of misreadings not only of deconstruction but also of postmodernism. When deconstruction is perceived as the most extreme manifestation of postmodernity, the very appearance of the term "skepticism" implies a strong and often reductive value judgment about the impasse, deadlock, or exhaustion of postmodern thinking: "postmodernism. . . [is] a continuation of the metaphysical skeptical tradition, reaching its dead end in deconstruction."2 In the aftermath of French poststructuralism, the problem of skepticism is persistently raised in both philosophical and literary studies in order to dramatize the "paralyzing" consequences of the postmodern critiques of reason and the subject.3 Although the charge of skepticism is usually dismissed as a misreading of Derrida's thought, the very frequency of this misreading and its persistent recurrence requires critical explanation. I argue that the repetition of skepticism in the reception of deconstruction inadvertently points to the crucial and frequently untheorized problem in Derrida's work: to the reinscription of skepticism as an ethical, rather than epistemological, problem facing modernity. The focus on the critical revision of skepticism, I claim, allows us to move past the endless discussions of the impasse of postmodernity, the exhaustion of subjectivity, and the collapse of reason, and to articulate instead an alternative interpretation of poststructuralist discourse-an interpretation that would account for the crucial role of alterity in language.

In order to articulate the stakes of the revision of skepticism, I will contrast two very different ways of broaching the problem of skepticism within deconstruction: the first path, followed by many of Derrida's critics, serves the purpose of dismissing the critical force of poststructuralism by assimilating it into the classical skeptical challenge that philosophy knows how to refute; the second path, initiated by Emmanuel Levinas's response to Derrida, implies just the reverse-that the ethical consequences of Derrida's critique of logocentrism and the philosophy of the subject are perhaps incomprehensible without a prior reappraisal of skepticism. Depending on the way it is articulated, the relation between deconstruction and skepticism can serve, therefore, two different purposes. In the first case, the problem of skepticism sets up the contrast between the traditional picture of language as a reliable means of representation at the disposal of the subject and the deconstructive view in which language relinquishes this representative function and thus leaves the subject without any relationship to the external world. In the second case, skepticism is invoked in order to articulate the difference between language understood within the parameters of the subject and language conceived as an exposure to the other.

The difference between these two ways of articulating the connection between deconstruction and skepticism is crucial for understanding Derrida's place within postmodern critiques of reason. In particular, the contrast between representation and exposure to the other allows us to clarify the consequences of Derrida's attempt to dissociate language from the metaphysics of the subject. Thus, what is at stake in raising the issue of skepticism is not only a matter of settling a controversy within the reception of deconstruction but also an inquiry into the implications and dilemmas of the postmodern critiques of rationality. One of the most powerful criticisms addressed to deconstruction in particular, and to the postmodern critiques of reason in general, is the Habermasian claim that postmodern thought is caught in the inevitable aporia of the totalizing critique of reason destroying its own foundation--or, what he calls, a performative contradiction: "The totalizing self-critique of reason gets caught in a performative contradiction since subject centered reason can be convicted of being authoritarian in nature only by having recourse to its own tools. …

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